The Concept of a Third Reconstruction

David Prior's picture

In this post for the blog, David Prior explores recent rhetoric about the promise of a “Third Reconstruction” and the lineage of historical analogies to the first.

In the past few years, there has been a flurry of commentary on the prospect of a “Third Reconstruction” in the United States. Understood as a mass movement, a legislative-administrative agenda, or a combination of the two, the Third Reconstruction promises to confront racism, especially in policing, the criminal justice system, election law, and the economy. This post provides some historical context for the concept and puts a question to H-CivWar’s readers. What do we make of this analogizing across historical moments, both as a form of public engagement and on narrower, scholarly terms?

The concept is now widely familiar. Just this week, congressman Mondaire Jones (D-NY) urged a Third Reconstruction in the Washington Post, while the past few years have seen similar calls in The Hill, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and academic blogs.[1] William J. Barber II’s theologically-infused memoir of coming to lead grassroots civil rights efforts in North Carolina, The Third Reconstruction (2016), is an origin point for the current upsurge of discussion.[2] But the concept dates back to at least the late 1960s, when historian and public intellectual C. Vann Woodward, who had earlier written of the Civil Rights Movement as part of a “New” and “Second Reconstruction,” gestured to the possibility of a Third to confront economic disparities across the nation.[3] One can find, as well, an even longer civil rights tradition of urging “New Reconstructions.” In 1919, for example, Howard University professor Kelly Miller published The Negro in the New Reconstruction, which looked to a national moral regeneration in the wake of World War One.[4] Beyond that, there is an even older tradition of using “reconstruction” as a metaphor for reform, historical change, and much else. There is much to say about these various points, as well as the scholarship that has developed Woodward’s concept of a Second Reconstruction.

The circulation of the concept of a Third Reconstruction should raise eyebrows among those interested in gauging how successful historians’ public engagement has been. In a 2017 discussion forum published in the Journal of the Civil War Era, Eric Foner noted that, earlier in his career, scholars had to devote energy to disabusing audiences of Dunning-school misconceptions about America’s Reconstruction. Now, in contrast, “the more common problem seems to be lack of knowledge. People bring a kind of blank slate to these discussions. They have a sense that Reconstruction was important but have little idea what happened or why.”[5] In this context it is remarkable how quickly the concept of the Third Reconstruction has moved to the fore. It seems we have almost teleported into a new cultural moment marked by broad familiarity with the First Reconstruction, in which the political Left is confident that references to it can rally efforts for substantive change.

Of course, it may be that both points are still true, and that it is precisely the inchoate nature of the First Reconstruction in the political imagination that allows for easy analogizing. Such fuzziness could be evident, for example, in how the concept of the “Third Reconstruction” has risen to prominence alongside other, perhaps conflicting, historical metaphors that situate the present as part of the “New Jim Crow” and a “Second Nadir.” (On these overlapping analogies, see Robert Greene’s article in Dissent in 2018.) To the extent that the idea of multiple Reconstructions makes sense and helps clarify thinking, it is in pointing to the need for federal action and legislation to protect African American rights from repressive local and state political campaigns and policies. It is no surprise that many of the individuals articulating the idea of a Third Reconstruction do so in defense of the proposed H.R./S.R. 1 “For the People” Bill, which is very much a federal countermeasure to state-level attempts to restrict minority access to voting.

But beyond that point, the analogy starts to get confusing, in part because there is a tension between using the analogy to mobilize and working through the complexities of three historical moments. Even while coining the concept of the Second Reconstruction in the 1950s, Woodward seemed uneasy with how it could mix analysis with politically-infused myth-making, and cautioned his African American peers in the Civil Rights Movement against seeing the First Reconstruction as a golden age.[6] Writing in 1966, he noted of the comparisons between the Civil Rights Movement and the original Reconstruction: “It would be a simple exercise to elaborate the analogies and spin out the parallels, but the differences are more impressive than the similarities.”[7] Whatever modern scholars think of Woodward’s specific concerns, the general problems with fine-grained comparisons seems just as pertinent to the present idea of a Third Reconstruction. There are of course ways in which Donald Trump was like Andrew Johnson (racist and temperamental), and the Justice Department is now playing a pivotal role in investigating white supremacist paramilitaries and vigilantes, as it did at points during Reconstructions 1 & 2. But the differences among these and other specific points of comparison are sufficient to muddy waters of the core analogy itself. Is the point that the First Reconstruction was a bold experiment we should take inspiration from? Or that it was too conservative and half-hearted (on the part of northern Republicans) to succeed? Is the lesson of the First Reconstruction that the nation-state can break the back of white supremacist organizations? Or that it has consistently failed to stop such mobilizing in the first place? Are we searching for a story of democratic efficacy or of the omnipresent threat of a white supremacist electoral majority?

Those questions raised, I can’t help but be struck by how the concept of the Third Reconstruction has taken hold. In general, I see the word “reconstruction” as so overburdened with meanings, even before the recent historical analogizing, that it tends towards confusion. As recently as 2015, one leading scholar, Steven Hahn, noted his uncertainty about what the term refers to in the context of American history.[8]  Notwithstanding, it appears that the term has been reborn in public discourse. One wonders if there isn’t, ironically, a broader consensus on the political Left about the nature and meaning of America’s Reconstruction than there is in recent scholarship.


[1] See, for example, Manisha Sinha, “The Case for a Third Reconstruction,” New York Review of Books, February 3, 2021 (; Adam Serwer, “The New Reconstruction” Atlantic Monthly, October 2020 (; Robert Greene, “The Urgency of a Third Reconstruction,” Dissent, July 9, 2018 (; Wilfred Codrington III, “The United States Needs a Third Reconstruction,” The Atlantic, July 2020 (; Rebecca E. Zietlow, “It’s Time for a Third Reconstruction,” The Hill, June 17, 2020 (; Halifu Osumare, “America’s 3rd Reconstruction – Black Lives Matter,” Halifu Osumare: Black Popular Culture Scholar, Dance Educator, Choreographer, July 19, 2017 (

[2] See William J. Barber II, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).

[3] See C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History, 3rd ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 177-78, 185, 186; and Hanes Walton, Jr., et al., “Beyond the Second Reconstruction: C. Vann Woodward’s Concept of the Third Reconstruction in the South,” The American Review of Politics 32 (Summer 2011): 105-130. Open access at:

[4] Kelly Miller, The Negro in the New Reconstruction, (Howard University Press, 1919); available at For this time period, see the excellent article, Brook Thomas, “Reconstruction and World War I: The Birth of What Sort of Nation(s)?” American Literary History 30, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 559-583.

[5]  “Reconstruction in Public History and Memory at the Sesquicentennial: A Roundtable Discussion,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 96-122; open access at:

[6] C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), 107.

[7] Woodward, The Burden of Southern History, 3rd ed., 168.

[8] See Steven Hahn’s comment in Eric Foner, et al., “Eric Foner’s ‘Reconstruction’ at Twenty-Five,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 14, no. 1 (January 2015): 13–27, 23.

A few thoughts provoked by David Prior’s post on a “Third Reconstruction.” I believe he is right that there is more consensus in the “informed” left-leaning public about the first Reconstruction than in recent scholarship. Understandably, that public does not read scholarship in detail, but relies on media “historians,” like Michael Beschloss or Jon Meacham, op-ed pieces, and labels. One of the risks of calling Reconstruction “The Second American Revolution” or the nation’s “second founding” is that those who do not read scholars’ complicated accounts are prone to bestow chauvinistic piety on the second founders once reserved for Lincoln and the first founders.

In 1927 when the Beards called Reconstruction a second American revolution, they were not celebrating it. For them, the transfer of power from a southern planter elite to northern business interests continued to leave out the working class. Perhaps we need a new Economic Interpretation of the Constitution for the second founding.

To be sure, the Beards and Harold K. Beale (the historian, not the character in the film NETWORK) anticipated a New Deal version of an economic interpretation. But, as Beale himself later recognized, it did not adequately deal with race. Furthermore, the “Beale thesis” was discredited because of its conspiratorial narrative about links between the Republican Party’s southern policy and big business. Woodward, Beale’s student, knew that his call for a “Third Reconstruction,” needed a more sophisticated narrative linking economic and racial injustice.

One figure to consider is Albion W. Tourgée, whose reputation was restored because of a biography by Woodward’s student Otto Olsen. The narrator of A FOOL'S ERRAND is highly critical of the “wise men of the North” whose plan for Reconstruction was a compromise designed to win an election and doomed to failure. But it is in his neglected later fiction that Tourgée most explicitly deals with links between racial and economic injustice by faulting Republicans for honoring “dollars and dimes” more than “human rights.” ’89 imagines a conspiracy between a southerner and a northern monopolist based of J. D. Rockefeller to control the labor/race “problem” in the South and the “labor” problem in the North.*** ’89 was followed by a novel about increasing economic disparity and one on continuing racial injustice. Perhaps Tourgée’s fictional understanding of a Reconstruction that never was can help us imagine a Third Reconstruction.

Brook Thomas

***Speaking of those influencing the public: Rockefeller is one of Ron Chernow’s federalist/ republican heroes along with Hamilton and Grant. Chernow's GRANT is significantly lacking in reckoning with the consequences of the Grant administration's economic policies, later attacked by the Populists studied by Woodward..

Dear Brook, 

Thank you for those helpful comments. Regarding Woodward, the Beale connection is an interesting one and helps provide some historiographical context for Woodward's "Third Reconstruction." He was very much concerned to link the issues of civil rights to economic justice. In one writing on the subject, "What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement?" he commented that:

...problems of a new and disturbingly different character were demanding attention--things like slums, housing, unemployment, deteriorating school and family, delinquency, and riots. They were not wrapped in historic sanctions and they were not amenable to romantic crusades and the evangelical approach. They were tough and harsh and brutally raw. What's more, they were national problems, not Southern, though the South faced some of them too. As soon as this came home to the North the great withdrawal set in....

How long before the country would be prepared to face up to a Third Reconstruction--which is what a realistic solution of the new national problems really amounted to--remained to be seen. (The Burden of Southern History, 3rd ed., p. 177)

Here, his thinking may have been following the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement that Martin Luther King, Jr. was pushing for. But it would make perfect sense if he was simultaneously thinking through earlier debates within Reconstruction historiography about the extent of economic motives behind federal legislation and the long-term implications of northern Republicans' narrow civil-rights agenda (not to say you meant exactly this). 

The comments on Tourgee are helpful as well and much appreciated. I'll be thinking about your comments as I keep working on the broader study of the evolution of the term "reconstruction." 

Kinds Regards, 


Hi Dave,
As someone who writes primarily for audiences beyond academia, I think you're right to wonder what we can assume the general public knows about "Reconstruction" in any context. But I suppose your questions underscore that scholars do not entirely live with certainty about Reconstruction, either.

In my own work, I use phrasing about "the failures of Reconstruction" -- meaning the period immediately after the Civil War -- to underscore that much of what feels unjust about the U.S. today stems from what was left undone, or poorly done, back then. I point to specific things like voter disenfranchisement or overpolicing of black individuals, families, and communities, and tie how they manifested then to what is happening now. While you are right that things are not truly the same, drawing the connections is, I think, valid. I do it to help people long out of any classroom see the value of continuing to cultivate a deep understanding of the nation's history. (And there is some good news there: As someone who relies on a public library, I can offer anecdotal evidence that since the killing of George Floyd, there has been greater interest in understanding the long history of race/racism in America. My "evidence": books I had kept out of the library, renewed for months or years, suddenly have long hold queues of patrons waiting for them. Who can be grumpy about having to return a great book of history because there is suddenly new demand for it? And more anecdotal evidence: attending racial justice protests over the past year, I often hear young speakers who know far more about history than I did at their age, and they are drawing on that knowledge to critique injustice today).

None of this quite answers your questions, perhaps because of my own resistance to regard Reconstruction as even a short-lived triumph. (Maybe we should be clamoring for "Anything But Another Reconstruction" or at least "Something Way Better and More Lasting than Reconstruction as You May or May Not Remember It"?? Let's get the marketing team on that.)

Perhaps I should conclude by noting the subtitle of UNTIL JUSTICE BE DONE, Kate Masur's new book: "America's First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction." It's a very clever way to get folks who might not have reached for "a tome on early American history" to approach the book with curiosity about its relevance to the current struggles for civil rights, as well as those of the twentieth century. And, of course, the first part of the title may be a stark reminder that justice has yet to be done.

Dear Lois, 

Thank you for your comments on my post. Your anecdotal evidence on an upsurge of popular interest in African American and civil rights history certainly conforms to my own impressions. Adam Serwer's "The New Reconstruction" piece from the Atlantic in Oct. 2020 does a good job of reviewing evidence for changing popular attitudes on race and civil rights, as evidenced in the remarkable (in the context of U.S. history) public support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Part of this transformation of public opinion certainly involves greater historical knowledge, although the precise nature of the relationship between opinion and knowledge warrants careful analysis.  

In my original post, when I commented on the concept of the Third Reconstruction raising eyebrows for those interested in historians' public engagement, I was gesturing to what I see as an important but complicated topic. No doubt others here can speak to this in greater depth, but I'll note that in my mind there must be several factors at play. The task of examining how opinion and knowledge about Reconstructions 1-3 have evolved together deserves its own book, let alone its own blog post. A few factors that might warrant consideration in such an examination would, I'd suggest, include: 1) the ability of scholars to connect directly to self-selecting audiences based on specific topics of interest using keyword-indexed (hashtagged) posts on social media; 2) the increased diversity of the historical profession compared to what it looked like, say, during "the Second Reconstruction"; 3) a shifting of norms within the historical profession that favors public engagement; 4) the rise of new publication and business models for periodicals that make selected content freely available online, where it is far more accessible than in the old print-subscription model; 5) an increase in the number of people who have substantive exposure to professional history through rising college enrollments; and 6) the increased ability of publishers to cultivate medium-sized markets for what might be called the "niche trade book." It used to be trade books in history needed to be about World War II or Baseball to be able to get on the shelves at most retailers. Now you can buy online and the publishers can collect and analyze much more robust data. 

Your comments about pointing to the failures of Reconstruction and jest about marketing hit upon what I see as a real tension within the current discourse about a "Third Reconstruction" as well as in Woodward's original discussions of the Second. Often, commentators oscillate between pointing to it as a model for historical possibility but also to underscore its deficiencies and the need for novel approaches. For example, in his article "The United States Needs a New Reconstruction," Wilfred Codrington III of the Brooklyn Law School comments that: 

In addition, a Third Reconstruction will require many things, three of them vital: truth, reconciliation, and recompense. At no point in American history has there been a major national effort toward achieving any of these things separately, much less collectively.

It does beg the question of whether the First Reconstruction then really serves as a good model, or, minimally, whether the term "reconstruction" serves as the optimal slogan for rallying public support for much needed reforms. I'll admit I don't really have the answer to what is best, but I find much of the discourse about new reconstructions deeply ambivalent. At its most sophisticated, this ambivalence becomes part of the message--as is evidenced for example in Serwer's and Greene's pieces, I think. It is the tenuous nature of past progress, they suggest, that make Reconstruction such a telling metaphor for the Civil Rights Movement and our own present. In that sense the term can be evocative, even if it can still lead a scholar into a tangle of detailed comparisons that seem to beg for deeper contextualization.

I agree with much of what Lois Leveen has to say in reply to David Pryor's post about uses of the term "Reconstruction." But I wonder if her final reference to Kate Masur's new book is not an indication of the questions David raises about the appropriateness of using a term used to describe one period to describe another.

In the case of Kate Masur's book the term in question is not "Reconstruction" but "Civil Rights Movement." UNTIL JUSTICE BE DONE: AMERICA'S FIRST CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT FROM THE REVOLUTION TO RECONSTRUCTION is a wonderful book. Nonetheless, the use of "Civil Rights Movement" for the antebellum period is somewhat anachronistic. Prior to Reconstruction, "civil rights" was used most often to refer to what today we call "civil liberties," which today's scholars try to distinguish from "civil rights." Another term in use was "civil privileges." (See the 14th Amendment's use of the "privileges and immunities of citizenship.")

The present meaning of "civil rights" began in the wake of DRED SCOTT when Taney declared that African Americans were not US citizens and had no rights that whites had to respect. Some states then began to pass legislation designating rights limited to whites: "civil rights"; ie, rights in civil society. The 1866 Civil Rights Act took its name in response to such legislation. It guaranteed to all US citizens some rights previously restricted to whites. Many white Southerners--and some white Northerners--protested that guarantee of "civil rights" as a governmental intrusion into their civil liberties. That protest became much louder with the 1875 Civil Rights Act that tried to extend civil rights to public accommodations, transportation, and entertainment. One of various arguments against the act was that it denied owners of a bar or a hotel the liberty of deciding who could be served in their private businesses.

In addition, in the antebellum period "political liberty," such as the right to vote, was distinguished from "civil liberty," which according to Blackstone was simply the "impartial administration of laws." During Reconstruction and for years after, the distinction became "political rights" v. "civil rights." That distinction disappeared in common usage during the 20th-century Civil Rights Movement, and voting rights were incorporated into civil rights. (For more on all of this, see the chapter "EX PARTE MILLIGAN: Civil Liberties v. Civil Rights" in my CIVIC MYTHS.)

If my account is accurate, historically should we call antebellum efforts to get legal equality within various states for Blacks--including voting rights--"America's First Civil Rights Movement."

I have no easy answer to that question or to the one David raises about "Reconstruction." I can point to other terms. There is an American Renaissance and a Harlem Renaissance. Medievalists insist on numerous Renaissances prior to the "real" Renaissance. Likewise, there are numerous "Reformations." No one can police how words get used. There are continual acts of appropriation. "Deconstruction" has come to mean all sorts of things that have nothing at all to do with the practice employed by Derrida.

Nonetheless, perhaps, as the the last example suggests, there might be a scholarly responsibility to clarify what "historically" a term once meant in practice. Perhaps there is also a scholarly responsibility to examine and try to explain the history of a term's many appropriations--including "Reconstruction." We might even learn something about history and social and political relations by understanding why some appropriations of a term prevail and others do not.

Brook Thomas

Right on, Brook Thomas.  Anachronisms abound in analogies like this as labels get stretched far beyond their utility.  Yet Brook doesn’t explore why this is happening, and I don’t blame him, because doing so questions the premises of the thread, which puts one at a disadvantage in having to pursue a lengthy exercise in confronting core assumptions.  I’m tackling it here, with sincere apologies for mammoth length, but concision is near impossible under these circumstances.  The burden falls upon the skeptic, so if you can stick this out please bear with me.

Writing in 2013, Sam Wineburg confessed that

too often, whether or not we like someone’s politics determines whether or not we like their history.  Many of us find ourselves reading the present onto the past, especially with issues we care about deeply.  I know I do it, and I don’t consider it a source of pride.  Instead of entering the past with a wish list, shouldn’t our goal instead be open-mindedness?  Shouldn’t we welcome — at least sometimes — new facts or interpretations that lead to surprise, disquiet, doubt, or even a wholesale change of mind?

Amen, brother.  John Saville told readers of Labor History way back in 1977 that “the radical left expects history to do its duty.”  Adam Serwer et al step up and gladly provide, in about as blatant a case of confirmation bias as I have seen since the last student final exam I trudged through.  Of course if I really cared what the “Left” thinks about Reconstruction, and I’m not sorry to say that the thread hasn’t persuaded me that I should care, I can always visit the left’s usual watering holes, like the Nation, DailyKos, or that saloon-keeper of depth and insight, Stephen Colbert.  Serwer’s eloquent article, which Dave Prior cites approvingly as inspiration for his project, is a classic symptom of polarized discourse that forecloses substantive debate.  It’s exactly the kind of journalism I expect to find at the Atlantic (I hope that Dave spends some time with Serwer’s colleague John McWhorter, but that could lead unpleasantly to “surprise, disquiet, doubt, or even a wholesale change of mind.”)  Like his enemies on the right, Serwer engages in an admirable summary of conventional historiography about his chosen issue to buttress a bipolar screed that demonizes the dissenters and praises those who agree with his prescription for a sick, sick country.  He reliably summarizes the anger behind northern reaction to Johnson in the swing around the circle, the depth of the atrocities in the South that prompted it, the naked partisan motives that exploited it, and the disillusionment that produced the retreat from Reconstruction.  There isn’t enough space here to dissect his subsequent analogizing of that phenomenon to contemporary public “radicalization,” a “swing around the circle moment,” aimed at the Republicans’ “white identity politics” and the “cruelty of the Trump age,” other than to suggest that the argument rests on many unstated assumptions and, if you will, prejudices, that in his mind foreclose not just alternative explanations, but the very legitimacy of any disagreement with him.  In an assertion astonishing in its arrogance, he argues that people who “still view racism as largely a personal failing rather than a systemic force” aren’t, in his mind, credible or even worth talking to.  He may be on to something about the growing energy for major change in today’s polarized America, but his understanding of those who don’t share his views is laughably jaundiced and throws the rest of his essay into question.  His purpose is to sweep away an irrelevant opposition so that reformers can act on “the necessity of post-pandemic rebuilding [that] also provides an opportunity for a truly sweeping New Reconstruction, one that could endeavor to resolve the unfinished work of the nation's past Reconstructions.”  This is the mentality of the crusader, the “true believer” that Eric Hoffer (another bete noire of the left) warned against, which writes off whole populations as beyond reason.  Those stubborn “white Americans” who refuse the opportunity of “fulfilling the potential of the current moment” need to get their minds right or step aside.  It seems not to have occurred to him that many of the same people who oversaw past reforms from Reconstruction to the War on Poverty entertained a similar condescension not only about their opponents, but also about the people they were trying to rescue?  After reading such an analysis it’s not far-fetched to predict that in Adam Serwer’s America, those “white Americans” now in the minority will get a dose of their own discriminatory medicine under the XIV Amendment’s disqualification clause.  I doubt that in such a future we’ll see him campaigning for that minority’s “access to voting.”  I don’t care if the advocates of another reconstruction think Republicans believe and do as he says they do; I do care when they read dissenters out of the conversation by classifying their misguided belief that “racism is a personal failing” as a hopeless mental defect.  If anything is a gross miscalculation of the diversity of public opinion, that surely is.

All of the above has much to do with the current thread, because it is, after all, a major reason behind the original post.  Just who ended up on Dave’s roundtable?  Serwer is there in spirit, for sure.  But heaven forfend that we ask (or even mention) “the Right” about this subject, let alone invite it to the table — they might ask threatening questions “that lead to surprise, disquiet, doubt, or even a wholesale change of mind.”  Wink-winking about Trump’s similarity to Johnson may be sufficient to explain the roundtable’s narrow composition (or maybe Allen Guelzo’s invitation did get lost in his spam bucket?).  Yet here are advanced scholars talking about a “reconstruction” that hasn’t happened yet but that they very, very much wish would happen.  After all, doesn’t the arc of history always bends toward justice, even if it never quite gets there?  If one sees the country’s past as a recurring conflict between the powerful and the vulnerable, if there’s always a forgotten man or woman, then when is reform ever “finished”?   Of course it never is because in hindsight subsequent reformers will judge its aims as “too narrow”: the country’s ills are so baked into the system that this will always be a work in progress, (pun intended).  How ironic that such a perspective so desperately seeks to radically change a people stubbornly impervious to it and who therefore always require heavier doses of behavior modification.  Jim Crow is always Jim Crow, whether it’s a lynch mob, a segregated lunch counter, or dressed in a suit and tie.  It’s the classic problem, I guess, of center-left intellectuals lamenting a center-right nation sorely in need of redemption.  No wonder Eric Foner warns us that having overthrown the Dunningites, the primary challenge right now is just to get the story straight. 

Look at how such analogies work. When abruptly shorn from vital historical context they distract from rather than strengthen a case that could be made on merits relevant to people here and now.  When we mistake the talking points at our usual political hangouts for some kind of “consensus” about an unfinished story, we engage in sure-fire confirmation bias: if we ask “was Reconstruction reform too narrow”? the sources inevitably say “yes it was.”  Wish becomes father to the history.  Go no further than Prior’s echoing the conventional half-truth of the left that “H.R./S.R. 1 ‘For the People’ Bill ... is very much a federal countermeasure to state-level attempts to restrict minority access to voting,” which is about as precise a description as the half-truth that the ironclad oath and black suffrage were “very much countermeasures to state-level attempts to restrict minority access to voting.” Both sets of reforms additionally qualify “very much” as self-interested attempts to expand one’s own constituency at the expense of opponents they regard as intrinsically evil.  But that’s about it for similarities and I’m surprised that an acute observer like Dave doesn’t see how they’re buried within layers of historical differences, as Woodward and Foner suggest in a larger context.  Why do we even need observe that conditions in the 1860s and 1870s were a world apart from those in the 21st century?  I guess we have to.  Reconstruction legislation occurred during and immediately after a devastating civil war that the public wanted to prevent from recurring.  At least the Wade-Davis bill, the Military Reconstruction Acts, various civil rights bills, and the Reconstruction amendments concisely stated clear principles that granted an enslaved class citizenship, rights, and suffrage for the first time, in the face of a political party and its paramilitaries who openly announced their repressive intentions.  Because the Republican party identified itself with the saving of the republic, in their eyes the resurgence of Democrats with the end of 3/5 represented an existential threat to both the party and the republic.

By contrast, the same virtue of concision is difficult to discern in HR 1’s 800+-page behemoth first introduced over a year ago and now in the Senate hopper, which practically no one has read all the way through (except the ACLU, which opposes the bill’s present form).  What Reconstruction-type crisis motivates this shotgun blast at a lot more than “minority access to voting,” which targets the election laws, campaign finance regulations, congressional redistricting, ethics rules, inauguration activities fergodsakes, disclosure requirements, campaign speech and advertising, and the very structure of elections of fifty (not 10) states?  And this is the Third Reconstruction’s answer to Georgia’s outlawing the Young Democrats from handing out coke and pizza to a waiting line of voters?  The only thing missing is federal troops, but tomorrow is another day when we might cheer on some future Phil Sheridan corraling Texas Republican legislators.  Any reader of a daily newspaper can see that there is a dispute, a partisan dispute, about state election legislation that warrants the historian’s careful weighing of still-incomplete evidence.  That HR 1 might be viewed as an unconstitutional centralization of local election processes closely associated in the public mind with locally-accountable self-government is unimaginable to the bill’s supporters and missing from Dave’s “analogies.”  That there are tens of millions of skeptics who test the costs against the benefits does strike me as worth bringing into the Third Reconstruction conversation because historians have shown that similar attitudes were abroad during every wave of sweeping reform in American history.  Brook’s comments on the opposition to the 1875 civil rights act nail this on the head; as Quincy Mills points out in his history of black barbershops, many black barbers opposed the act because it could force them to accept black customers at the expense of existing well-paying white ones — their economic self-interest was distinctly at odds with the civil rights narrative that justified the passage of the act.  They wanted access to public accommodations alright, but they also wanted to run their own businesses.  Adam Serwer, call your office.  As unfair, unjust, and disappointing as the retreat from reform in the late 1870s is to modern sensibilities and was to contemporary reformers like Frederick Douglass (who, Mills observes, deprecated the black barber trade as demeaning and servile), I would suggest that those who see another Reconstruction in HR 1 might, if they make the attempt, be careful lest it succumb to the weaknesses of the first.

If we turn to the scholarly “debate,” after poring over Prior’s post and his roundtable, I’m at a loss to see any real daylight separating the participants. What are they debating?  Would any of them entertain the possibility that the original Reconstruction promised more than a 19th century republic emerging from civil war could perform, or that its compromises of principle came in part because its radical proponents failed in the elementary democratic task of persuading a skeptical public that the long-term objective of remodeling a post-emancipation South on an image without sufficient parallels in the daily life of common voters in the North was worth the long-term sacrifice?  It took a civil war and 750,000 dead to demonstrate that, as Lincoln lectured Congress, the freedom of the free depended on the freedom of the slave.  The key would be developing a working understanding of “freedom” that a majority could sign on to.  Couldn’t someone be invited to the table to even ask challenging questions about the unintended consequences of radical reforms in a republic specifically designed to put the brakes on change, even if sudden-onset deafness strikes the rest of the crew around the table?  What an enlivening experience it would be to have Guelzo, Alan Brinkley, Mark Summers (whose recent review of Heather Cox Richardson’s book is the absolute best I’ve ever read in my near-thirty years at H-Net), or personae non gratae Amity Schlaes and Christopher Caldwell drop in on Prior’s gathering to question the unintended consequences of reform, let alone of any “reconstruction”!  You don’t have to agree with their perspectives or put them on your holiday card list to realize that theirs are legitimate questions to pose of present as well as past reforms.  Still, I’m not holding my breath.

I tend to see Reconstruction as a post-emancipation society’s struggle with nation-building (or rebuilding, I guess) in the aftermath of a horrific war, similar in some ways to efforts at nation-building by the social scientist visionaries in charge of everything from Vietnam to Afghanistan.  These folks had their own “conquered provinces” theories about the benevolent uses of power that ran square up against the common citizen’s preference for incrementalism over long-term, root-and-branch reforms that, as W. McKee Evans argues in his mini-classic, Ballots and Fence Rails, require the persistent application of federal force over an extended stretch of time.  The prerequisite of a crisis that threatens the foundation of the social order is why I am skeptical of offhand analogies to the Reconstruction era.  “Reconstruction” presumes “destruction” as the opportunity for real, deep change when the social order lies in pieces on the floor.  Is that the case today, with a vast welfare state, after a generation had expended trillions on problems that it traced to the unfinished business of slavery and Reconstruction, and on the 50th anniversary of affirmative action?  Does the “next Reconstruction” concept reflect the hopeful aspirations of frustrated reformers for whom there’s always a crisis we can’t let go to waste, and who really want someone to just seize power (or put them in power) and make it happen the way that the country’s leadership failed to do in the 1870s (and, one presumes, the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s,..)?  This would classify such a modern effort not as another Reconstruction, but as another Progressive Era, New Deal, or Third (or whatever, I’ve lost count) New Deal of the 60s, all of which tapped the analogue of war, provided ample employment for educated elites and technocrats, and were energized by a core belief that the state is the real engine of public improvement and protector of the weak and the vulnerable.

Lois says that anecdotal evidence persuades her that in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder “there has been greater interest in understanding the long history of race/racism in America.”  She has a point if we replace the old antiracism with a new one in which, as Ibram X. Kendi proclaims to widespread intellectual acclaim, media celebrity, and royalties, the answer now to discrimination is discrimination.  The old antiracism already got quite a workout and despite the large number (I daresay a majority) of Americans who still believe with King and Frederick Douglass that a person be judged by character instead of skin color, that, as Douglass proclaimed in 1849, "this great truth ... all distinctions, founded on complexion, ought to be repealed, repudiated, and forever abolished — and every right, privilege, and immunity, now enjoyed by the white man, ought to be as freely granted to the man of color," it apparently no longer serves.  This in a country where race and rights have been practically the only thing this nation has persistently talked about since 1960 at the very least, a point Brinkley drove home in his classic analysis of the end of New Deal liberalism.  The subject is the litmus test of politics, society, and academia.  For almost forty years it has come to dominate K12 curricula, historiography, teacher training, popular media, late-night TV shoutfests, 24-hour news cycles.  Where does Adam Serwer think his “antiracist majority” came from?

I think that Eric Foner’s strategy of posing large, essential questions about the Reconstruction era that resonate today and to which a plurality of answers are possible, is a wise approach that recognizes significant progress on the issues under discussion.   Any discussion will be fruitful if it inspires new research in the Reconstruction era.  But if the debate or advocacy of yet another Reconstruction or Progressive Era is dominated by the limited range of opinion and scramblings of meaning that one sees here, then will it meet a similar fate as the first Reconstruction?  That generation of reformers, like so many since, failed in the fundamental democratic task of persuading persistent majorities to stay the course.  If it is to be more than a partisan moment, then the advocates of a “third reconstruction” or new golden age of reform should expect the same signs of skepticism, retreat and exhaustion that scholars have identified in the exact same reform periods they cite as precedents for doing it all over again.  We can comfort ourselves that the inevitable backlash is just raw prejudice immune to persuasion, but that fundamental misreading of the resistance guarantees a recurrence.  The voters might get as fed up — again — with “endless reform” as they do with “endless wars.”  At the very least, such viewpoints need to be part of the discussion rather than simply defined out of it. 

Thank you,


Dear Peter,
I cannot address all of the points you raise, but let me take a stab at addressing your concern about unstated assumptions by looking again at the title of Kate Masur’s excellent book, this time its lead: UNTIL JUSTICE BE DONE. I think that one of your points—correct me if I am wrong—is that many write today as if the meaning of “justice”—past and present--has already been decided rather than being contested and subject to revision.

An example from a groundbreaking book, now 20 years old: David Blight’s RACE AND REUNION. Blight acknowledges that efforts during Reconstruction to bring about intersectional reconciliation stemmed from “a noble and essential human impulse.” But the negative consequences for African Americans undermined even the best intentions. “The tragedy of Reconstruction,” he writes, “is rooted in this American paradox. The imperative of healing and the imperative of justice could not, ultimately, cohabit the same house.” Nonetheless, the eloquent balance of Blight’s formulation does not do full justice to the past. There was not—and is not—only one sense of justice and one sense of healing. As much as I disagree with Andrew Johnson’s views of Reconstruction, he sincerely believed that his actions were following the Constitution and just. He especially thought he was doing justice for poor southern whites whose background he shared. Many of that group along with working class whites in the North were convinced that the economic policies of the Republican Party were not just. Reconciliation required negotiating at least two different notions of justice.

That effort returns me to the relevance of Albion W. Tourgée and C. Vann Woodward. When it comes to racial justice, one of today’s contested terms is a “Colorblind Constitution.” Today, conservatives cite Justice Harlan’s metaphor of a “Color-blind Constitution” in his PLESSY dissent to oppose affirmative action. What they do not know is that Harlan lifted his metaphor from Tourgée’s brief to the Court. Even more telling, Tourgée also used color-blindness in its negative connotation as a failure to see the conditions of people of color. “Right [the freedman] had, in the abstract; in the concrete, none. Justice would not hear his voice. The law was still color-blinded by the past.” Tourgée understood both sense of justice and tried to reconcile them.

On Woodward. I think that it is fair to say that no book has been more important for shaping the direction of Reconstruction scholarship in the last 30 years than Eric Foner’s RECONSTRUCTION (1988). It is important to remember that the publisher turned to Foner when Woodward could not come up with the synthesis required for the book’s series. Foner self-consciously tried to change the direction of scholarship in Woodward’s generation and the “Second Reconstruction.” He writes: “Shocked by the resistance to racial progress in the 1960s and the deep-seated economic problems the Second Reconstruction failed to solve, influential historians portrayed change in the post-Civil War years as fundamentally ‘superficial.’ . . . Summing up a decade of writing, C. Vann Woodward observed in 1979 that historians understood ‘how essentially nonrevolutionary and conservative Reconstruction really was.’” Foner contested the description of Reconstruction as conservative because "it took the nation fully a century to implement its basic demands, while others are yet to be fulfilled” (xx-xxi). Thus “America’s Unfinished Revolution.”

No one is more aware of the need to link questions of economic and racial justice than Foner. But I would like to suggest that, if indeed, the program of Reconstruction was revolutionary, it is because its promise of racial justice was egalitarian. Nonetheless, as the Beards, Beale, and Woodward argued, its “revolution” in economics was not equally progressive. On the contrary, it contributed to the massive income inequality of the late 19th century.

A final thought about “presentist” historiography. I would not be honest if I did not acknowledge that the views I expressed above are at least in part motivated by a concern about conditions in the present. Perhaps all scholarship starts with some “pre-judgments”; that is “prejudices,” acquired by our particular social, racial, and political situations in the present. But I would hope that the goal is to our pre-judgments" through historical inquiry, not simply to confirm them. In this sense, the German word is more helpful: “VORURTEILEN.” Our prejudices/beliefs might motivate our research but they should be preliminary, not final, judgments. Especially when it comes to questions of justice.

Brook Thomas

Brook writes that “reconciliation required negotiating at least two different notions of justice.”  I couldn’t agree more, it’s why I argued that the period required arriving at common meaning of freedom that a majority could live with.  Today’s headlines scream at us to seek guidance in the past through scholarship and reflection.  Lefties aren’t the only ones who write from a cause, an issue, a concern about the world they live in -- every historian does.  That’s not presentism or anachronistic so long as it avoids confirmation bias.  We all know that the way a question is asked and to whom it’s asked do much to shape the answer one receives.  If you ask a group of left-leaning scholars whether Reconstruction “succeeded,” they’d discuss pros and cons within a narrow range of possible outcomes, and all would agree that it remains “unfinished.”  Their view of past and present is largely in sync: the country always needs constant, vigorous reform in order to hold back ever-present retrograde forces that want to take us back (in our present example) to “the cruelty of the Trump age.”  Nor am I concerned about what definition of justice people wish to use when doing their history so long as they advertise it in advance and don’t mistake it for some larger consensus.  I think that Rawlsian justice — justice as “fairness” — dominates the contemporary public mind and produces a paradoxical effect: common folk want amelioration (“there oughta be a law”) for this or that “unfairness” but reformers want a “third Reconstruction,” and the latter are shocked, shocked to encounter deep-seated skepticism in a country of born skeptics with a long history of questioning authority — even, heaven forbid, their authority.  So I have no problem with a Kate Masur being motivated to investigate early periods of reform because she very much wants extensive, perhaps radical, reform today.  But I expect her to consult and consider the widest range of scholarship and opinion in doing so, and to use categories and standards that make her work intelligible, persuasive, and useful not just to a cherry-picked audience but to any curious reader.  That’s what Wineburg meant by open-mindedness.

Eric Foner’s book on Reconstruction is one of the best I’ve ever read.  I taught from it, referred to it constantly, and was persuaded by the wisdom of its judgements and the depth of its evidence.  Synthesis is the hardest kind of history to write.  But an awful lot more than Foner is on my mind in the voting booth. The circumstances in which he lives, as a revered Columbia professor with a long pedigree in liberal causes, are far removed from the lives of people I come into contact with every day and whose views are worth considering as well.  I have no reason to question Foner’s motives beyond noting where self-interest and compassion can be joined at the lip, and when he appears on the occasional witness list of cable news shows (as he did during the brief debate over birthright citizenship and the genesis of the XIV amendment), I listen closely to him out of respect for his knowledge.

Whether “color-blind” refers to “color neutral” or “blind to color” (or that conservatives believe this — some do, some don’t) is an interesting invitation to discussion.  What matters to me is the extent to which the beliefs of those one disagrees with are written out of the debate as the product of a deluded mind.  “Color blind” is more metaphor than constitutional edict — it stands for a perspective about “equal rights before the law” that is, as Brook notes, related to but still distinct from “economic justice.”  Whether Harlan’s observation is at odds with modern understandings of a “color blind” constitution, its present-day version is Chief Justice Roberts’s conclusion in the plurality opinion of Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  That prescription is not founded on what Adam Serwer thinks it is — that racism is a “personal failing rather than a systemic force”— but on Frederick Douglass’s demand that “distinctions of color” be removed from public institutions and policy.  And it is anethema to Ibram X. Kendi’s “the answer to discrimination is discrimination,” in which “distinctions of color” must drive public policy, where "white," or "black," or "hispanic," or whatever must be the prefix to every name or title.  This is a debate worth having; I see arguments in both camps even if Kendi and Serwer don’t. The tension between these versions of equality before the law defines the intensifying battles over policing, the justice system, elections, and industrial policy, among a host of others.


Dear All, 

To cycle back to one of Brook's earlier comments, I'll note a difference between Masur's referencing of civil rights in her recent book and the use of the concept of the Third Reconstruction in present discourse. [Full disclosure, I have not read Masur's book and am commenting here based on Brook's description--but think there is still an important distinction to make.] In Masur's case, as Brook describes it, she would be taking a past historical movement or struggle and using current language to describe it--or at least in the instance cited. In the case of the "Third Reconstruction," the analogy moves in the other direction. With the concept of the "Third Reconstruction," scholars, pundits, and politicians are taking a term commonly used to describe a period in America's past and applying it to the present. Those waters are muddied further by the fact that the term "reconstruction" has always been confusing and that there are multiple, contending interpretations of what "America's Reconstruction" entailed.

On the term's long-confusing nature, note that Peter's comment that "'Reconstruction' presumes 'destruction'" is not necessarily true either with current usage or that of the Civil War Era. I can "reconstruct" a scene that I saw in passing, and which has not been "destroyed" but is slipping from memory; Constitutional Unionists sought to reconstruct the constitutional order so as to avoid civil war and its potential destructiveness; European utopian socialists sought to "reconstruct society" not by first "destroying" it as much as overseeing its rebirth. In general, "reconstructing" can mean, as it could in the 19th century, to rebuild something destroyed or reconfigure something by deliberately taking it apart and putting it back together. I'd wager that the shattering of the social order that Peter refers to reflects our understandings of the concept of Reconstruction as it has been shaped by our reading of American history, not the only necessary meaning of the word, or even the one prevailing at all moments during the Civil War Era.   

As to Peter's concerns about the lack of balance, openness, and neutrality in the profession, I'll note a few things. The first is that I think he has broadly misread my intention in the opening post, which was to throw open discussion of the value of the concept of the "Third Reconstruction" for either scholarly purposes or public engagement. I concur with him that the term is being used for polemical ends in many cases and am not put off by arguments that we shouldn't be doing this, but also find the rise of the concept in recent discourse striking. It may be worth noting that I found Serwer's article, as well as many of the others cited, while searching for research leads on the history of the concept of reconstruction, not by habitually reading the Atlantic, which I can't say I do.  

For those who share Peter's concerns, I'll note that there is some good reason to take heart. To connect this point to Brook's comment on Blight's Race and Reunion, I'll  suggest that the subsequent career of the book is a good indication of how sharp our critical faculties remain. Blight's book is one written, I think, with clear moral fervor and an overt ideological edge. I imagine most U.S. historians share his general commitment to racial equality. But has Race and Reunion not come in for serious challenge, even searing rebuttal, by scholars who find fault with his rendering of racism, reunion, and remembrance in the late-19th-century United States?

Kind Regards,


Dear David,

I agree with most of your post, but I do have a question and a qualification.

I. I am glad you pointed out the difference between using a 20th-century term—“Civil Rights Movement”—to refer to the antebellum period and using a 19th-century term—“Reconstruction”—to describe efforts in the 20th or 21st centuries. I had wanted to make this distinction in my follow-up post, but I was already taking up too much space. So here I am again taking up more space.

My question: Are you implying that it is appropriate to do the former, but not to do the latter? If not, what is, for you, the significance of the distinction? If you are implying that that the former is appropriate and the latter is not, why? Is your point that those using the term “Third Reconstruction” are less sophisticated than Woodward and Foner were when they used “Second Reconstruction?” What about the “Harlem Renaissance?” Is there more scholarly consensus about the “Renaissance” than about “Reconstruction.”

II. I fully agree about the excellent scholarly engagement with RACE AND REUNION.

(a) Nonetheless, unless I am wrong—and I might be—the focus was on his conflation of “reunion” and “reconciliation” and showing that there was more resistance to sectional reconciliation than Blight allowed. Did anyone raise the point that there were competing definitions of justice at the time? If so, please give me references.

(b) One of the suggestions in your original post was that those on the non-academic “left” seem to have more agreement on the first Reconstruction’s lesson for today than professional historians. It is my sense that Blight’s book continues to have more influence outside of the profession than correctives to it. This is certainly the case for literary critics writing about Reconstruction. Blight’s book is frequently cited. Caroline Janney’s only once—by me.

(c) Recently, when FOREIGN AFFAIRS wanted a piece on “Reconstruction” it turned to Blight, who did a fine job in limited space. Nonetheless, he persisted in calling “Reconstruction” a “second founding” and a “Revolution.” As evidence he cites the 14th and 15th Amendments. But both were compromise measures, designed by moderates. Until the 20th-century Civil Rights Movement, the 14th was used 10 times more often to protect corporate rights than civil rights. It continues to be the basis of CITIZENS UNITED. The 15th did not, as Blight claims, “extend voting rights to Black men.” It conferred suffrage on no one. It was prohibitive, not affirmative. States remained in control of suffrage; they simply could not use race to deny it. In debates, measures to prohibit literacy and property requirements were defeated. Charles Sumner’s proposal to CONFER the right to vote was opposed—in part by those concerned that it would allow Chinese to vote.

(d) H.R./S.R.1 is an effort to make up for some of the deficiencies of the 15th Amendment. Is it possible that at least some non-academics calling for a Third Reconstruction recognize that it is needed because the first one was not as revolutionary as some scholars claim it was? To use a term from literary criticism, there may be a recognition that the first Reconstruction needs to be “supplemented.” A “supplement” is not simply a “complement.” It is an addition that alters that which it supplements. For instance, after the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Sumner called for a “Supplementary Civil Rights Bill” that would add to and alter the understanding of what civil rights entailed. My notion of a “Third Reconstruction” is a Reconstruction supplementing the first and the second.

Sorry to ne so long-winded.

Brook Thomas

Dear Brook, 

Thank you again for your excellent questions. Let me add a few comments. 

In terms of the distinction between using present terms to describe the past vs. using past terms to describe the present, I'll admit I'm still making up my own mind concerning how important the distinction is--but I thought it warranted mention. It does seem to me that any work that seeks to explain the past to the present has to do some work of translation, especially if aiming for an audience that reaches beyond fellow specialists. In that sense, what Masur has done would be of a piece with what anyone would need to do when writing for a broader audience about a period in the past where familiar terms had different meanings. Do historians similarly need to use terms from the past to describe the present? That strikes me as less essential. Perhaps not, I'm happy to be persuaded otherwise. Not having read the book, I of course don't have a strong opinion about the specific example.

With the case of taking the term "reconstruction" and applying it to the present, I do tend to see it as a particularly--if not uniquely--confusing word, then and now. I can't venture an answer concerning your comparison to "renaissance" at present, but think it is an excellent question and will keep pondering it as I continue my research. On the confusing nature of the term "reconstruction," I'll note that Eric Foner ends his study of Lincoln and slavery, The Fiery Trial, by arguing that Lincoln's use of the term "reconstruction" indicates his embrace of a more radical approach to the problem of ending the war. I don't find this argument convincing. The term could have radical connotations, particularly as it was used by socialists and other radical reformers, but such connotations would have had little value to a politician seeking to convince a skeptical public about the need for expanding African American rights. Those connotations, moreover, existed alongside a separate thread of meaning that reached back to before the war and were largely not radical in nature. Lincoln's uses of the term strike me as in line with those non-radical ones (such as when people wrote of "reconstructing Poland," meaning putting it back together from its partitioned parts), and do little in and of themselves to make Lincoln sound radical. I think of Mark Summer's point in The Ordeal of the Reunion or **Louis** P. Masur's Lincoln's Last Speech about the term "reconstruction" initially referring to reunion. Those works point to only part of the word's complex evolution, but one that Foner's argument in The Fiery Trial neglects. Of course, there is plenty of gray area I've yet to explore in the word's wartime evolution, so perhaps I'll change my mind. At any rate, I think the term has always been remarkably ambiguous. 

Regarding Blight's Race and Reunion, my aim in my earlier comment was merely to link the two threads of discussion here together. I do not have any readings on Blight's use of the term "justice" (but will add I also find the passage you quote less than persuasive). I concur with your appraisal that the book has had more influence outside of academia than does Janney's and others that take a different line from his.

I will note, by way of digression, that I've long thought that scholarship would benefit from a compendium of criticisms of published works (I'd call it "The Woodchipper") that would invite peers to catalog errors, lacunae, missed opportunities with individual works. That would be a valuable addition (or supplement), I think, to having a multitude of scholars write brief book reviews devoted largely to summary with only a few lines of scattered criticisms. Likewise to the endless proliferation of historiographical essays that devote much of their space to reviewing the same sequence of publications instead of pushing their fields of study forward. In such a project, an entry on Race and Reunion might review the implications of Janney's work, as well as Barbara Gannon's and others, as well as provide original discussions of the various definitions of justice that the volume doesn't attend to (assuming scholars were willing to write such entries). I'm sure we can all think of other works that we'd love to see dissected (although I'm mixing metaphors) through a process with academic, editorial oversight. Some works have entries like this on Wikipedia, but the lack of unitary editorial oversight there tends to produce garbeled prose and logical incoherence over the length of long, multi-author articles. Perhaps a good model exists but I'm just not aware of it. 

I agree with you that the 14th and 15th amendments were moderate in their nature (relative to what Sumner and others like him wanted) and share your greivance with other historians, let alone public commentators, for consistently misdescribing the 15th amendment as granting suffrage when it obviously did not do this. Indeed, the fact that it did not do this is integral to the subsequent history of the United States. 

One last comment... I think your notion of the three reconstructions as "supplementary" goes a long way to suggesting why the idea of multiple reconstructions is so evocative. 

Best wishes, 



Dave’s exegesis on the varied meanings of “reconstruction” is similar to my experience with investigating the meaning of “compromise” before the Civil War.  That term has several applications in everyday life and legislation, but changes to its meaning were responses to circumstances, not to some abstract and mystical philosophical process.  The sectional crisis imbued “compromise” with a particular application and resonance in public discourse.  I would argue that the same applies to “reconstruction,” which has its own generic meanings for other times and circumstances, but that in the American context has been shaped indelibly by its connection to the Civil War and emancipation. I thought the issue in this thread concerned the pertinence of analogies to that Reconstruction, not whether contemporaries used it to describe other things from rebuilding a house to creating a utopia. (Maybe on H-Ideas Dave and I can discuss his assertion that utopian socialists equated society’s “reconstruction” with “rebirth” without first “destroying it,” leaving us to puzzle how the proletariat's liquidation of class enemies on the way to achieving its dictatorship isn't a destructive process, and just how they expected the state to “wither away”).  It’s about a third reconstruction, which presumes a #1 and #2, and the analogies it proposes are to #1, hence my assertion that the prerequisite for “reconstruction” is destruction.  This needn’t be a Hiroshima in order to leave behind unprecedented, widespread physical, material, and mental exhaustion amply documented in contemporary congressional, newspaper, and traveler reports about conditions in the postwar South.  I think it’s reasonable to talk about emancipation as shattering the existing social order, the result of a “remorseless revolutionary struggle” that Lincoln feared but had to help along, and with long-term consequences.  This doesn’t rule out other uses of the term, but it places the burden on users of analogies either to explain why those circumstances apply now or to admit that they prefer to tear the concept from its historical roots altogether.

Dave’s statement that “Constitutional Unionists sought to reconstruct the constitutional order so as to avoid civil war and its potential destructiveness” is a post facto traffic jam of carts and horses.  If Dave has references to these folks proposing “reconstruction” before the war to prevent that war from happening, I’m eager to see them.  Their proposals in the secession winter sought to keep Humpty Dumpty up on his wall, not to rebuild him.  In their minds, there was everything to preserve and nothing to “reconstruct” before a war, and more to lose than to be gained by reconstruction after one.  Explicitly tying destruction to reconstruction, Crittenden warned a couple of weeks after John Brown’s execution “that once destroyed this Government can never exist again.  We can restore nothing that we have once broken.”  Pointing to the water pitcher on the table in front of him, he told the National Union Executive Committee 

break that pitcher and you can never have it the same again.  You may patch it and mend it, you may put all the pieces together, but it cannot be the same.  It will have its former ring no more forever.  And so if we destroy this Government we can never have the same feeling for any we may reconstruct.  The ring and the charm will be lost.  

If however, Dave means that during the war conservatives proposed “restoration” as a form of “reconstruction” in order to prevent a resurgence of civil war, then I have no quarrel with him.  It just doesn’t change the nature of the discussion here.

Dave is the expert on this, but for now I know of no persistent uses of “reconstruction” in US public affairs before the sectional crisis.  A quick and dirty search of the largest newspaper archive — — from 1800 to 1990 shows unmistakably that the term was barely even present before the 1850s (~1300 hits, 1800-1850; ~4100 in the 50s; ~160,000 in the 60s).  It was common during the Civil War era to refer to a president “reconstructing” the cabinet on the presumption that its members were not “destroyed” but that the old cabinet was gone and being replaced. “Reconstruction” with a capital R named an era of rebuilding a shattered country whether it meant an impossible restoration of “the Union as it was” or the new-modeling of the South to be imposed by a federal army.  Conceding that nothing except death and taxes prevails at "all" moments during any time in the past, I will, in that context, argue that this was indeed the “prevailing” usage during that era: that a massive rebellion that entailed the emancipation of 3.5 million people,the deaths of 750,000 others, and the severing of eleven states’ “practical relations” to the national authority necessitated a reconstruction of some kind, and war above all created that necessity.  It’s an unprovable counterfactual, but would Lincoln have even been discussing “reconstruction” had southerners decided to fight it out at the next election instead of trigger a war by seceding?  

Today’s reformers don’t need to manufacture analogies to a past exercise of federal power in wartime if they want to seek “reconstruction” by “supplementing” the Reconstruction-era XV Amendment.  Why not just make the case on the merits that the implementation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on their terms necessitates overturning the Shelby County decision and federalizing the election laws of 50 states in one fell swoop?  The only reason I can think of for this particular analogy is that the proponents of the bill want to connect in the popular mind two “expansions” of rights, despite the radically different circumstances between then and now, and to sugarcoat the tremendous depth and breadth of the undertaking.  If they succeed I expect the law will fail in the courts, but either way I’ll bet a drive-through meal that in 20 years reformers will declare that HR1/SR1 was “written by moderates” who left the work “unfinished” so it now needs a “supplement.”  Meanwhile, I'd never expect or ask Dave to be "put off" by historians with a Cause in mind as they write.  I would ask him to be on the lookout for confirmation bias, for questions that determine answers, and for the likelihood of mixed motivations.  After all one can be sincere and self-interested at the same time.  That means to me that if a broader range of historians is consulted than the narrow sampling we’ve seen so far we might see a real debate among them about the uses or abuses of an analogy to the Reconstruction.